‘Caffeinated Frenzy:’ Roz Chast Discusses Career as Cartoonist

roz chast

As an award-winning cartoonist for The New Yorker, it was only natural that Roz Chast introduced herself with a cartoon.

Titled “A Note on the Author,” it showed Chast as a girl curled up in bed surrounded by books like The Big Book of Horrible Diseases and Lockjaw Monthly. Like “A Note on the Author,” many of Chast’s cartoons use humor to expose people’s bizarre insecurities.

Chast spoke to students and faculty about her work as part of Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Lecture Series on Wednesday night. She also read from her New York Times best-selling graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which is about caring for her aging parents.

Chast’s ideas often come from her own life. In a panel showing “When Moms Dance” she quotes her then 16-year old daughter: “Mom. Stop. You’re hurting me.”

“There is almost nothing more revolting in the eyes of a teenager than the adult human body,” Chast said.

She did not hesitate to bring in the current political climate, including a drawing of Donald Trump’s thought process as an assortment of random words such as “cyber,” “disgusting,” “fat,” and “great.”

Chast always thought she would become an artist. She never thought she would become a cartoonist, but she began to develop a sense of humor in her artwork.

“I would try to draw a serious horse, and it would come out prancing or something,” she said.

When Chast submitted her first portfolio of 60 cartoons to The New Yorker in 1978, she had little hope of selling any. She thought the head cartoon editor would tell her that she was too young to create cartoons worthy of the publication. To her surprise, the editor bought one of her cartoons and invited Chast back the next week. She has worked as a contributor to the magazine ever since.

Chast described her process of drawing each week as a “caffeinated frenzy” to submit ideas. Artists for the magazine submit a batch of up to a dozen cartoons every Tuesday and are lucky if even one is printed.

Chast’s early experiences as a cartoonist were not always successful. For example, Chast gave a talk at Hallmark after printing cartoons such as “Narcissist Greeting Cards” with captions like “Hey, your birthday’s close to mine!”

She mocked classic cards with dramatic poems and backgrounds like “A sunrise, or a boat, or a boat at sunrise … where theperson is trying to say I’m sorry, I’m f—ked up, but the poem is something obtuse like oh, the waterfall is flowing down.’”

Suddenly, Chast realized that none of the Hallmark executives were laughing.  Experiences like that, however, did not stop Chast from including dark humor in her work.

As a child, she loved artists like Charles Addams, whom she discovered when her parents left her alone in the library at times over the summer. Addams’s work featured children, unlike the boardrooms and cocktail parties of other magazine cartoons, and greatly influenced Chast’s macabre sense of humor.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? also includes the intense themes of death and aging with humor. She described the challenge of navigating her relationship with her parents as she realized they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV-commercial old age. For example, when Chast took her father shopping for underwear, he refused to wear a red sweater, whispering “Communism…”

“I don’t know if you weren’t supposed to wear red in the ’50s or if this was something he just dreamed up,” Chast said.

Chast also shared poignant sketches of her mother in the last few days that she visited her in the assisted living facility. She said that her parents will always be a part of who she is and what comes to mind when she sits down to draw.

Chast ended by talking about her experiments with other artistic mediasuch as embroidery. She thinks of her unique drawing style as her handwriting, and said that she enjoys playing with that style. She believes, however, that the ideas behind the art are ultimately most important.

Her goal with Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was to use humor to expose the aspects of aging and family relationships that we keep hidden.

“There’s so many things we experience that I was so naïve to, and I wish that it was more a part of the culture,” she said. “We don’t talk about it, and we need to.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor